What is a Nation?
1): A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.
Karl W. Deutsch, in the opening lines of his book Nationalism and its Alternatives wrote that- “A nation is a group of persons united by a common error about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbours”, quoting what he described as a “rueful European saying”. Rueful or not, the saying has something to it. At least it makes the point that a nation is not a geological feature like a mountain, a lake, or an island. It is a human artefact. A cultural artefact, and an abstract one at that, which emphasises ideas, beliefs and traditions held in common by one group of people, which distinguish them from other groups of people. It is, in other words, both inclusive and exclusive. What is significant about a nation is that unites a number of population groups over an extended area. What holds these people together is not necessarily a “common dislike” of their neighbours, but rather a sense of common difference from them. They may believe this or that about their ancestors, but among themselves they are aware of two things: a high level of mutual understanding (this usually, but not always, implies a common language) and a high level of interdependence.
Nations are constructs. They are formed, not by geography, but by history. Usually they have been formed, partly at least, through political processes, through which the more or less universal mutual hostility between neighbouring villages or tribes to more remote ‘foreigners’, and in the sense of fates being bound together. Such a process is virtually impossible without some sort of centralised organisation. This need not be political, indeed in times past it was more often cultural or religious, but the creation of a nation from an earlier tribalism appears to be the most common way in which, historically, nations have been formed. Irish nationalists and republicans often forget that a nation is an artefact. A construct. The Irish nation is not a ‘fact of nature’, nor was it bestowed by God. It is a cultural and political construct, just like any other nation.
That the Irish nationalist is unique in almost anthropomorphising his/her country is disconcerting. There is something not quite right about any group of people who seem to endow the land upon which they live with it’s own persona. Eriu it seems, is more than just a mythological figure in the minds of many Irish nationalists and republicans. For some she seems to be, disturbingly, all too real. Perhaps this is a by-product of the overly sentimental and outrageously romantic view of history that Irish nationalists seem to embrace. Their sense of ‘mythos’ is matched only by the German nationalists of the late 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. The ‘völkisch’ ideologues who inspired, and in a lot of instances became, the Nazi party’s upper echelons. Pseudo-history, quack science, racism and occultism seem to have been the ideal ingredients for the creation of the most immoral and despicable regime the world has ever seen. Yet the same kind of claptrap didn’t take Irish nationalism down a similar path of murder, forced expulsion and violence of every kind. Well, at least not on the same scale!
What is Nationalism?
1) Patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts.
1.1) An extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries.
1.2) Advocacy of political independence for a particular country.
It has been the common experience that nations, in modern European history at least, have tended to (or aspired to) organise themselves as states. The ‘nation-states’ however, which were the characteristic political formations of post-medieval Europe, were usually, to a greater or lesser extent, multinational entities. France, Spain and the United Kingdom are good examples. As a result, ‘nationalism’ is an ambiguous term. It may refer to the aggrandising or ‘super-nationalism’ of nation states, or it may refer to the purely reactive nationalism of the submerged nationalities, like the Catalans, the Bretons, or (before 1918) the Czechs and the Poles.
Nationalism is a marked feature of comparatively recent history. It is intimately associated with the rapid growth in the power and functions of the state. At the beginning of the 20th century nationalism appeared to be natural and normal. It was respectable, intellectually, socially, culturally and politically. Nations appeared to be as ‘self-evident’ as races. Each nation, like each race, had it’s own distinctive characteristics, which could be readily recognised and easily stereotyped. It is no longer so. The ‘racial’ and national presuppositions are no longer intellectually respectable, nor, socially, politically or culturally acceptable.
The nation, in the modern ‘Western’ world at least, has served as one of the chief vessels of culture. This is changing now though. Entropy appears to be the current norm in cultures across the world, as more and more parts of the world become more and more like every other part. Perhaps the appearance of globalist uniformity is deceptive. If not, it is paradoxical; for life is the reverse of entropy. Cultural differences not only still exist, despite the trend towards uniformity, but are still keenly felt, especially in places, like Ulster, where one or more culture seems to be under threat. Nationalism, in a global context, is a dying political doctrine, though it’s demise will be slow and no doubt, painful. Tragically, people will continue to die (and to kill) in the name of ‘national liberation’ for many years, perhaps decades, to come. Nationalism is however, an ideology of the past, not of the future. Of course, social and political evolution may well come to the aid of nationalism. Patriotic inclination is unlikely to simply disappear (at least for the foreseeable future) but whatever form the expression of those patriotic inclinations takes, it will not be the unreconstructed, unreformed nationalism of today.
Nationalism and Racism
Racism needs a political context or background to become relevant and such a context was provided at the correct time with the development of nationalism. The French philosopher Balibar stated that there was a relationship of “reciprocal determination” between the two ideologies, meaning they were not the same but instead served to support each other. Nation-states were often based on false pseudo-scientific claims. These false notions of ‘race’ provided ideal fuel for nations which, were attempting to promote themselves as separate constructions. Irish nationalism (at least historically if not contemporaneously) used such a notion, extolling the virtues of a supposed ‘Irish Gaelic race’ often, and made strenuous attempts to make this imagined ‘race’ as different to (and distinct from) the ‘hated Saxon foe’ as possible. The Gaelic Athletic Association, arguably the largest Irish nationalist organisation that has ever existed, still makes reference to “our race” in their constitution (also known as the “Official Guide). I should also remind everyone that the words of the Irish national anthem “Amhrán na bhFiann” (A Soldier’s Song) contains references to “Sons of the Gael”, “children of a fighting race”, and even more shockingly, the line, “Out yonder waits the Saxon foe”. Surely if, for example, the national anthem of an African state contained references to ethnic/tribal warfare, as the Irish anthem does, questions would be asked and concerns raised at the UN.
Racism is inextricably linked to the doctrine of nationalism. History’s most heinous example of racism blended with ultra-nationalism- Nazism (National Socialism) was also known as ‘Pan-German Nationalism’ or simply as ‘German Nationalism’. The Nazis’ contemporaries in Imperial Japan were also driven by a kind of synthesis of nationalism and racism, believing themselves (the Japanese ‘race’) to be ‘supermen’, descendants of the Gods, and as such, superior to every other nation and people in Asia (if not the world). Predestined to rule a vast dominion because of their ‘superior bloodline’. More recently we have seen something of a resurgence in nationalism in Europe, in movements like Greece’s ‘Golden Dawn’ and the UK’s BNP, which have deep and often overt racist undertones. Irish nationalism has done it’s best to play down any racism that remains within. The latent anti-Semitism displayed by some more extreme Irish nationalist/republican elements recently clearly illustrates however that the old racism is still there, and it doesn’t take all that much to bring it bubbling back up to the surface again.
Is Loyalism a Form of British Nationalism?
Possibly yes. It could be construed as such. I would argue though, that Ulster Loyalism, like the mainstream body politic in Mainland UK, is post nationalist. That is, whatever more traditional nationalist ideologies morph and evolve into over the next couple of decades, Loyalism, like ‘Labourism’ or ‘Conservatism’, has already become. Certainly there is a sense of patriotism within it. Yes there is a keen sense of needing to preserve and protect Ulster-Scots culture and Loyalist traditions, but Loyalism, as an ideology, has never concerned itself with race, ethnicity or ever espoused the notion that Britain should be the pre-eminent power in world politics. It hasn’t needed to. Ulster Loyalism is concerned, first and foremost, with Ulster. An accusation of parochialism could be levelled at Loyalists (and indeed sometimes is). Our detractors need to bear in mind though, that the United Kingdom is a multinational state. A union of nations. From it’s very inception the UK has been, by definition, multicultural. British nationalism, leaving aside the repugnant racialist views of the likes of the BNP, is a peculiar beast. More akin to Spanish nationalism, or, if such a thing even exists, Swiss nationalism. Even if Loyalism could be proven to be a form of British nationalism, comparing British nationalism with the nationalism of Ireland, or for that matter, Sweden, Croatia, Italy etc is not a useful exercise, because of the gulf of difference that exists between them.
Loyalism, or at least certain strands thereof, could more readily be described as a form of Ulster nationalism. Although again, no worthwhile comparison can be made with Irish nationalism (to cite a pertinent example), for whilst Irish nationalism still seems to employ a rather archaic, 19th century view of ethnicity (or ‘race’), wherein Irish equals Gaelic, as if no drop of Saxon, Pict, Norman or Viking blood had ever intermingled with the ‘pure Gael’, Ulster nationalism has no such ‘historic’ foundation. For any supposed Ulster nationalism to base itself upon the idea of an ‘Ulster race’ one would first have to be invented. As an Irish republican online troll once told me, “The Ulster-Scotch are a bastard race” (sic). Of course, in a way that is true. Whilst I would disagree with that particular Irish nationalist’s definition of the word race, I would agree that the Ulster-Scots people are of mixed ancestry, mixed ethnicity. After all, we are mainly Scots (ethnically speaking) but we also have a large measure of English in us, not to mention Irish, Moravian, French Huguenots etc. An Ulster nationalist would therefore, have to be compared, not to an Irish (or Slovak, or Ukrainian etc) nationalist, but to a Pakistani nationalist, or an East Timorese nationalist. Two nation states formed by seceding from a larger entity (India and Indonesia respectively) not because of perceived ‘racial’ or ethnic differences but because of more subtle cultural and linguistic differences, in the case of the Timorese, and cultural and religious differences with respect to the people of Pakistan. Ulster nationalism is not however a major strand of Loyalism, it is at most, an undercurrent. Ulster Loyalism cannot simply be understood as being simply the mirror image of Irish nationalism. Much study has been made of Irish nationalism, little study has been made of Ulster Loyalism. Although thankfully now that is changing. Nationalism, of all stripes, has been extensively studied and dissected, thanks to the work of many renowned scholars academics and historians, it has been laid bare.
We, as a species, should hope that the worst examples of nationalist extremism are not repeated in the coming years. We should also collectively determine that nationalism should be kept under close watch until such time as it dies it’s natural death, evolving into something more inclusive, something less imbued with dangerous romanticism and reckless historical revisionism. The 20th century was pockmarked and scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing and terrible, industrialised slaughter. Most of it done in the name of nationalism. If the 21st century were to turn out the same way, if we are to be doomed to repeat the desperate follies of previous generations, then in my opinion, we will have failed as a species. In such an event, Homo Sapiens Sapiens would be better going back to being simple hunter gatherers and leaving civilisation to creatures who would make a better job of it. After all, cockroaches have never murdered six million of their own species, just for being ‘different’.